Movie review: ‘Marjorie Prime’

September 28, 2018
Thumbnail

SHOWN without much promotion, we were all alone inside the theatre when we watched “Marjorie Prime” at SM The Block, so thanks to SM for screening it even if there was only one paying viewer to watch it. The film is for thinking viewers. Based on an acclaimed Off-Broadway play by Jordan Harrison, Marjorie (Lois Smith, she played the same role on stage) is suffering from dementia and her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law, John (Tim Robbins), provide her with a so-called Prime, a holographic version of her late husband in his younger years, Walter (Jon Hamm), to help her fragile memory to make a remembrance of things past and help fill in the gaps in her memory.

As Tess and Jon participate in the conversations with the hologram, the dynamics of their family’s relationships surface, with one traumatic memory about Tess’ dead brother and two dogs both named Toni playing a very big factor. The entire film is set in the family’s beach house and dominated by dialogue, so it’s easy to detect that it’s originally a play. The script is peppered with big, thoughtful ideas about memory and interpersonal relationships and how we find help in technology to feel more human, just like “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix and “Ex Machina” with Alicia Vikander.

Aside from Tess and Jon, the only important character in the film is Julie (Stephanie Andujar), Marjorie’s Hispanic caregiver. The core cast is pretty solid. Even Jon Hamm is very affective as the AI (Artificial Intelligence) who deliberately projects a relatively flat and bland personality on screen, just like one coming from a designed computer program.

Lois Smith has been acting all her life. She started with James Dean in Eliza Kazan’s 1955 drama, “East of Eden”, and her filmography includes such films as “Five Easy Pieces”, “Dead Man Walking” and “Minority Report”. Prior to Marjorie, we last saw her as a nun in “Lady Bird”. Here, she is moving as Marjorie, who flits from good days to bad ones as her mind continues to deteriorate.

And the horror of it all is that she’s perfectly aware of what’s happening to her, making the battle between remembering and forgetting so poignant. Later on, she would be a Prime herself for Tess, and her before and after portrayal of Marjorie offers interesting contrasts to what both she and Walter were doing in earlier scenes.

Both Geena Davis and Tim Robbins give wonderful support as Tess and Jon, which is not surprising since both have won best supporting Oscars, Geena for “Accidental Tourist” in 1989 and Tim for “Mystic River” in 2004. As Tess, Geena has problems with many things in her past (her own daughter doesn’t talk to her) and present (she doesn’t feel it’s right to have a hologram of her father as a young man talking to her mom.) On the other hand, Jon thinks the new technology is helpful to his mother in law and he even shares his own memories of the family to help Walter Prime build up his own memory bank.  Jon is also commendable in being such a supportive husband to a wife who seems to have an inherently difficult nature.

As written and directed by Michael Almereyda, a key point in the film is the scene where Walter reminds Marjorie of how much they loved “My Best Friend’s Wedding” which starred Julia Roberts, but Marjorie herself remembers “Casablanca” more. The film’s high concept idea suggests that memory alone cannot be that reliable as they are not permanently set in stone, unless of course, written down in a diary or journal. Often, they are molded and revised by people to make their sad past more tolerable and easier to accept.

The film takes this theme further as the narrative progresses and even delves into some philosophical issues as we meet more Primes in the future. It shows that people in our lives can come and go and, in the end, only memories remain. The film seems like it maintained the breaks between the play’s acts and some nature shots are inserted to make the fadeouts clear to the viewer. This can still be confusing to some but we think it prompts the audience to think and ponder instead of just spoonfeeding them, leading to some final scenes that are emotionally loaded.

This includes a flashback scene in a museum where the murals provide fantastic background scenery. Another memorable asset of the movie is the fantastic string-based musical score, with a little help from the music of Mozart, who’s mentioned in the film. The cinematography is also superb. Since there’s only one location, it uses close ups that can be quite emotionally devastating to advantage as it underlines the tensions and conflicts that run through the film, giving the cast the chance to give finely nuanced performances.